In Panama, one of the most off-putting things you could say on a first date is that you’re a squatter in Casco Viejo. While certain aspects of the neighborhood have elegantly evolved to catch the eye of gourmands and appreciators of the arts, there are persisting facets that still represent the underbelly of a downtrodden and dark society. With the turn of the mid-century, Casco Viejo devolved into a crime-ridden wasteland home to unkempt streets, ruthless gangs, and stray animals with nowhere else to go. While Casco’s future reflects far more than that, the local squatters represent a link to its past.
On a busy day, Casco Viejo is veiled in the hubbub of blue-collar workmanship. Women and men in ironed suits walk in and out of government office buildings, construction workers sweat in the summer heat, and local businesspeople zip in and out of newly restored porticos. Come nighttime, the Casco emits a different, more relaxed and timeless vibe: with the ocean breeze wafting town-goers through the neighborhood’s stylish bars, restaurants, and open plazas. A sense of mystery lingers throughout Casco’s alleyways and when I started business there nearly two years ago, it was this deviant allure that drew me in.
“Let me get this straight,” friends would say. “You know the names of the people in those buildings?”
Those buildings were Casco Viejo’s squatter houses which, except for the working TVs and slept-in beds, resembled abandoned psychiatric wards from a colonial era: unstable grand staircases, decaying stone archways, and this god awful stench. At first, this was a smell I grew to associate with Casco Viejo as a whole – one of stagnant pools of water, old meat, urine, marijuana smoke, cheap spray-on cologne.
That its squatter population is actually a hilarious and entertaining crew is something you’ll rarely read in guidebooks about Casco Viejo. The neighborhood’s characters form what I like to think of as an all-star team of everything that is bizarre: from Tito the Drunk, who takes any opportunity to ask for new teeth, to Henry, an impish and cross-eyed druggie who addresses everyone else by his own name; Henry. There’s Ezekial, a seven year-old boy who enjoys urinating in a cup then throwing it, and Hugo, the tough yet lovable leader of the fourth street gang.
Squatters in Casco Viejo moved into the neighborhood around the 1950′s, just after Panama’s elite stormed out. I don’t know how accurate I am in thinking that hoards of them arrived to blocks and blocks of recently-emptied mansions, like The Beverly Hillbillies. “Look mah,” the kids might say. “This bathroom’s got two toilets!”
“That, my boys,” the mother would proudly point out, “is what we call a bidet.”
In college just before I left to study abroad, I was given an information packet entitled “How to be an ambassador to your country.” I remembered this packet last week when a local crack head in Casco Viejo approached and asked me for $0.25. In the name of the American work ethic, I suggested he dance in the middle of the street wearing a tutu from a nearby trashcan. He enjoyed the dare nearly as much as I did.
Over the course of the past fifty years, squatters have made Casco Viejo their home. Some of them pay small rents, some don’t pay at all. They’ve turned decrepit buildings into skate parks, open plazas into soccer courts, and small nooks into compact homes. Their relationship with the incoming wealth tends to be conflicting, seeing as though the process of losing their home is imminent. But for the time being they remain a solid part of Casco Viejo life.